Saturday, October 17, 2015

Review: Canon PowerShot N

Canon PowerShot N
My wife wanted a new camera. My son dropped her old Nikon point-and-shoot in Barstow in July. Her iPhone 5 is sufficient for most purposes, but it lacks versatility and storage, and she was ready to have a dedicated camera.

I asked her what she wanted in a camera and was given a list: easy to use, good out-of-camera photos,   compact, easy sharing, and inexpensive. Initially I was looking in the $500 dollar range, but my wife reminded me that she didn't want to spend that much money. This was going to be a difficult task because something's gotta give, but then I stumbled upon a camera that seemed perfect for her.

The camera that I found is the Canon PowerShot N, a quirky little camera that my wife thought was cute. To say it's small is an understatement! It's 3 inches wide, 2.5 inches tall and just over an inch thick. It looks like a square with a lens on the front.

The Details
Mt. Whitney Behind Mobius Arch - Lone Pine, California
The PowerShot N has a back-illuminated 1/2.3" CMOS sensor with 12 megapixels, which is tiny, but larger and with more resolution than many cell phone cameras. It's also the same sensor found in the Canon PowerShot SX280 HS and several other Canon pocket cameras. The camera has Canon's DIGIC 5 image processor. It uses a micro-SD card, which, if you don't already have one lying around, can be found for pretty cheap.

The lens is a 5mm-40mm zoom (28mm-224mm in full-frame terms when taking into account the crop factor), which gives you an excellent focal length range. It retracts into the camera body when turned off. The maximum aperture is f/3-5.9 (depending on the focal length). The glass seems reasonably sharp, constructed with eight elements in seven groups.

At 5mm there's noticeable softness in the corners and at 40mm there's significant vignetting--not uncommon in lenses that cost more than this camera, but it is frustrating to see an image ruined by this limitation. Lens flare is well controlled and chromatic aberrations were hard to find, but occasionally were spotted in high-contrast areas.
Three Tree Reflection - Yosemite National Park, California
Image stabilization is included in the camera, and Canon claims that you gain two stops with it. In theory, that means, if you hold the camera steady and the subject is stationary, you should be able to get a sharp photograph with the shutter as slow as 1/8th of a second with the lens set at its widest focal length. At the telephoto end you should be able to get a sharp image with the shutter as slow as 1/60th of a second. This is all in theory and I'm not sure exactly what it is in actuality.

Auto-focus on the camera seems pretty good. It uses contrast-detection, which works better in bright light than dim. There are nine auto-focus points across the middle of the frame and the camera has face detection. The camera can focus as close as a half-inch from end of the lens, which allows for macro photography, but that is only when the camera is set at it's widest focal length. There is no option for manual focus.

There are 10 shooting modes: Auto, Hybrid Auto, Program, Fisheye Effect, Miniature Effect, Toy Camera Effect, Soft Focus, Monochrome and Creative Shot. All of those are automatic modes except for Program, which allows you to manually adjust many of the settings, although you have to dig through the menu in order to do so (in other words, it's not convenient).
Vintage Half Dome From Olmsted Point - Yosemite National Park, California
Auto mode works well and the camera does an excellent job of figuring out what the settings should be for the scene in most circumstances. Hybrid Auto mode takes a short couple-second video each time you capture an image, and at the end of the day the camera stitches the clips together to create a video (otherwise this mode is the same as Auto). Miniature Effect blurs the top and the bottom to simulate using a tilt-shift lens, although the results aren't all that convincing. Monochrome, as you might have guessed, makes a black-and-white image; however, you'll likely get better results if you convert a color image to monochrome in post-processing. Toy Camera puts a vignette around the edges and shifts the colors to simulate results that you might get using a Holga camera. I didn't try Fisheye Effect or Soft Focus modes.

The coolest mode is Creative Shot, which is the same as Auto mode, except for the camera creates five alternative versions of the image to go along with the original. The effects are random, and they range from cross-process to Holga to monochrome, and some are cropped or tilted. You don't know what you're going to get and you have no control over what the camera will produce, but the results are sometimes more interesting than what I might have come up with on my own. It's fun to see what you'll get! And the great part is some of these images don't require any additional post-processing--they often look good out-of-the-camera.

A 461,000 dot touchscreen fills the back of the camera. This screen flips up 90 degrees, which makes self portraits a bit tough (but not impossible). The menu is set up to look and work similar to apps on a cell phone and there are places where swiping the screen in different directions does different things. The interface is easy to learn and is set up fairly well.

Using It
A Lovely Fall Day - June Lake, California
The controls on the PowerShot N are simple, but a couple of them are a bit unorthodox. The left-side of the camera has an on-off switch. The right side has a switch to enable or disable Creative Shot, a Facebook button (which, if you've set up the camera's WiFi appropriately, allows you to upload images to Facebook from the camera), and a play button so you can review your photographs.

The cameras zoom is controlled with a swivel switch on a ring around the lens. Turn it left to zoom out or right to zoom in. A second ring, which is depressed (not turned), focuses when pressed halfway and opens the shutter when pressed fully.

Everything else is controlled through the touchscreen. You can also focus through the touchscreen and, if you have the camera set up to do so, activate the shutter. It's a straightforward setup that's designed to be simple.
Autumn Yellow - Mono Canyon, California
The double-ring design for zooming and exposing an image is unique. If you handed the camera to someone who didn't know how this camera works it is unlikely that they'd figure out how to take a picture with it. Once you know how it works it is simple, but until then it is confusing. Even knowing how it works it is a bit mysterious why Canon designed the camera this way, because there doesn't seem to be any specific advantage to it.

One cool feature is that the camera automatically rotates the image when held upside-down. You can hold the camera above your head and have the screen tilted down so you can compose your image--perfect for when people are standing between you and whatever it is you are photographing.

You can also hold the camera at waist level and tilt the screen to work kind of like a view camera. This is great for street photography because, between the position of the camera, the small camera size and unusual controls, no one will suspect that you are taking a picture. You can remain inconspicuous.
Half Dome From Olmsted Point Monochrome - Yosemite National Park, California
The camera has a built-in LED flash. It's not all that powerful, but it works well as a daylight fill-flash. For nighttime photography, the subject will need to be within a few feet of the camera for good illumination.

You can get around 200 exposures on a fully-charged battery, but the actual number of photographs you can capture will vary depending on how you use the camera. The battery charges through a USB cable.

The camera can record 1080p HD video. It automatically continuously auto-focuses, even while you zoom. Simply touch the record button on the screen to begin recording.

Image Quality
Erick Schat's Bakery Reflection - Bishop, California
I was surprised at the image quality from this camera. It has some limitations, but it makes a good travel camera or secondary camera.

The PowerShot N makes nice looking JPEGs (there's no option for RAW) out-of-camera that require minimal post-processing. I would like the landscape photographs to have a little more saturation, micro-contrast, and sharpening, but not much. White balance seems spot-on accurate in most situations.

The camera is capable of ISO 6400, but image quality begins to noticeably suffer beginning at ISO 800. The camera applies an increasingly heavy noise reduction to the JPEGs as the ISO gets higher. The photographs look best when the ISO is 400 or less, but are usable as high as ISO 1600.
Sierra Nevada Range Behind Hill - Lone Pine, California
The dynamic range of this camera is narrow--I would compare it to slide film. You can expect to find some highlights and shadows that lack details. Contrasty scenes will give it the most trouble.

In clear sky situations banding was occasionally found in the images. I notices that this becomes more prominent as the lens moves closer to the sun. I discovered some other strange artifacts occasionally when closely inspecting the images, and my guess is that this is due to the sharpening applied to the JPEGs.

The 12 megapixel resolution is plenty for prints up to 16" x 20" and, if you plan to crop, you should still be able to get good-looking 8" x 10" without trouble. Resolution is often overrated, and, unless you are planning to print very large, this camera has more than you'll need.

Price & Recommendation
An Orange Tree - June Lake, California
The PowerShot N has an MSRP of $299, but since the camera is two years old and a new model is out, it can be found for much less. I paid $130 for mine. I certainly wouldn't pay full price, but at half-price you're not likely going to find a better camera.

Who is this camera for? Anyone who wants a cheap, small and lightweight pocket travel camera that delivers decent results. You could use this as a secondary camera for when you are doing less serious work. It could be an excellent option for street photography because of the inconspicuous design. Maybe you just need something small for travel. It's not a perfect camera and it certainly has limitations, but for under $150 those limitations are easy to overlook.

Put simply, the Canon PowerShot N is a tiny camera that can be had for very little money and delivers good results. That's what you need to know.

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